Illiteracy in English: A Serious Problem YOU Can Help End
This is about an idea so big that small-minded people do not want even to consider it. This is a challenge to you, dear reader: please do not be small-minded — or close-minded. There is a serious illiteracy problem affecting all 1.4 billion English-speaking people around the world — and there is only one proven solution. This article will prove it to anyone willing honestly to mentally engage with the facts presented. Whether you know it or not — whether you believe it or not — the problem explained here has varying degrees of negative effects on every English-speaking person around the world.
To help you understand, I need to use an analogy. I feel like the medical doctor who has a patient with a serious, eventually fatal medical problem for which he has treated the symptoms with an expensive home-remedy for several years. After offering to explain the simple medical solution to his illness, he only wants to know the cost of the cure. I explain the cost of the cure. I explain that his home-remedy fights the symptoms but will never cure the disease – similar to taking cough and pain medicine and decongestants instead of antibiotics to cure pneumonia. He decides that he will continue with his home-remedy because the cost of the cure is almost the cost of three months of his home-remedy.
This is a very close description of what is happening in reading education. We have been fighting the symptoms of the problem in reading education since 1755, and for various reasons only a very tiny proportion of scholars will honestly examine the problem. It is really disturbing to see the enormous amount of time and money and the multiple thousands of teachers, parents, and literacy volunteers fighting the symptoms of reading education in this country — when the solution is so simple, easy, and quick (less than three months for learners). Half-measures may reduce the symptoms suffered by some of the students, one-at-a-time, but they are not doing what is needed to help everyone at once by solving the problem.
The problem: it is difficult to learn to read English (as explained below).
The symptoms of the problem:
- Almost half of English-speaking students in America (and presumably an equally disturbing number of students in other English-speaking countries) never become fluent readers in English. Almost every U.S. adult can read at least a thousand simple words learned in the first three or four years in school, but they cannot read well enough to hold an above-poverty-level-wage job (as proven below). They do not like to read and seldom try to read. Statistics show that almost half of U.S. adults never read an entire book after leaving school.
- Most of those who do become fluent readers need at least two years learning to read well enough that they can continue to improve their reading skills after reading instruction in school ends. Most reading instruction in U.S. schools (other than remedial reading) ends after third or fourth grade. As a result, as teachers who are familiar with teaching reading to students in other countries know and as members of some “think tanks” such as The American Enterprise Institute know, American students are about two years behind the students of the same age in other industrialized nations.
- Information in following sections proves the seriousness of the symptoms.
The first step in solving any problem: find what is causing the problem. You can spend an enormous amount of time and money fighting the symptoms of a problem. If you do not solve the problem, however, it continues to occur — undiminished (often increasing) in intensity.
Proof that Learning to Read English is difficult:
The English spelling system is NOT a logical alphabetic spelling system. English spelling is more like Chinese writing in which specific shapes in specific positions represent a word. English spelling uses a specific combination of letters in a specific order to represent a word. This came about in 1755 with the publication of Dr. Samuel Johnson’s well-received dictionary. Dr. Johnson, in effect, froze the spelling of words instead of freezing the spelling of phonemes (the smallest sound used to distinguish between syllables and words in a language or dialect), as a logical alphabetic spelling system is designed to do. In most cases, Dr. Johnson used the words as they were spelled in their language of origin. Words were added to the original Celtic from the languages of every conqueror who occupied the British Isles: Norse, Icelandic, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, German, Danish, and French. Since 1755, as explained in Henry Hitchings book, The Secret Life of Words, the English language has adopted words (and usually their spelling) from 350 additional languages.
A logical alphabetic spelling system should have a one-to-one correspondence of phonemes and graphemes (a grapheme is a letter or a specific combination of letters used to represent a phoneme). To read English, a student must only learn to spell 38 phonemes and learn how to blend them into words. There are 26 letters in our alphabet, so we could spell our phonemes with 26 single-letter graphemes and 12 two-letter graphemes. Instead, in addition to 26 single-letter graphemes, present English spelling uses at least the following: 184 two-letter graphemes, 131 three-letter graphemes, 22 four-letter graphemes, and four five-letter graphemes, for a total of 367 graphemes — when only 38 are needed! When more graphemes are used than are needed, that means that many of the graphemes represent more than one phoneme each. In fact, only five single-letter graphemes (B, K, P, R, and V) have only one pronunciation each. The other graphemes (of any length) have from one to eight pronunciations each. Adding to the confusion, however, all but six of the single-letter graphemes (H, Q, U, W, X, and Y) are doubled in some words and not in others — with no reliable way of knowing which is which. Also, all 26 of the letters in present spelling are silent in some words (reAd, deBt, sCent, velDt, havE, halFpenny, siGn, rHyme, busIness, riJsttafel, Knot, taLk, Mnemonic, autumN, sophOmore, rasPberry, lacQuer, suRprise, aiSle, depoT, bUilt, savVy, Write, fauX pas, maYor, and rendeZvous) with no reliable way of knowing if a letter is silent or not. Also, some English words do not spell all of the sounds in the spoken word or the graphemes do not show the proper order in which the phonemes are to be pronounced.
For Reading: The student or writer must know the pronunciation of as many as 367 graphemes to use — with an average of 2.2 pronunciations each — by memory, for each individual word, because the phoneme that a grapheme represents can (and often does) change from one word to the next. Individual graphemes represent as many as eight different phonemes.
For Spelling: The student must remember which graphemes — and in which order they occur — for each individual word. This is even more difficult than reading because the spelling of each phoneme varies from only (!) four spellings for two of the phonemes (H as in hat and TH as in then) to sixty or more for the U phoneme as in nut! Professor Julius Nyikos of Washington and Jefferson College in Pennsylvania studied six standard dictionaries and found 1,768 ways of spelling 40 English phonemes — an average of 44 spellings each! Furthermore, no one can learn to read using English spelling rules. There is not even one spelling rule that does not have exceptions – and some of the exceptions even have exceptions! A computer programmed with 203 English spelling rules was able correctly to spell only 49 percent of a list of 17,000 common English words. Most adults cannot do as well.
After reading this you may say, “So what? I learned to read.” Here is the “So what:” hundreds of millions of English-speaking people do not. Does that bother you? It should. Their illiteracy costs you and me money and negatively affects each of us — and our nation — in numerous ways that you have probably never considered.
Proof That a Phonemic Spelling System Will SOLVE the Problem:
Dr. Frank Laubach spent more than forty years going all around the world teaching thousands of adults in more than 300 alphabetic languages (other than English) to read fluently. He prepared primers for 313 languages and even invented spelling systems for 220 unwritten languages. Here is the proof: His books, Teaching the World to Read and Forty Years With the Silent Billion, never mentions even one student that he was not able to teach to read fluently. Dr. Laubach was able unfailingly to teach students to read fluently in from one to twenty days (!) in 95 percent of the languages and in less than three months in 98 percent of the languages! He was able to do this because the languages in which he taught were almost perfect, phonemically — a one-phoneme-to-one-grapheme correspondence. Confirmation of Dr. Laubach’s findings is given by comparison to the amazing findings of Dr. Rudolph Flesch. He stated on pages 167-168 of his 1981 book, Why Johnny Still Can’t Read, that Russian schoolchildren are taught to read 46 of the 130 national languages of Russia — in first grade! There is no reading instruction, as such, after first grade.
The difficulty of learning to read English is NOT because of the difficulty of the language itself, however. The English language is neither among the easiest nor among the most difficult. Axel Wijk states on pages 56-57 of Alphabets for English, edited by W. Haas, that English is a comparatively easy language to learn for foreigners, “… mainly due to its grammatical structure, which is far simpler that those of most other important languages, particularly so in comparison with French, German, Russian, or Spanish.” Sir James Pitman states on page 264 of his book, Alphabets and Reading, “No other major language possesses such a simple grammar and syntax or combines the following advantages: . . .” The first two of the eight advantages he lists, for example, are: there are no arbitrary genders and agreement between adjectives and nouns is unnecessary. The grammar and syntax of English is easier than that of many European languages, for example. In most European languages, students learn to read fluently in less than three months.
Dr. Laubach stated on page 48 of his book, Forty Years With the Silent Billion, “If we spelled English phonetically, American children could be taught to read in a week.” All those resisting change may insist that we prove it on several thousand American children in a public school. Those objecting to a proven solution are effectively trying to “reinvent the wheel.” Dr. Laubach has quite adequately proven that phonemic spelling systems are easy to learn, and it would be a huge mistake to continue expending enormous amounts of time and money when the solution has already been proven. Education researchers may want to do additional research. The reason is obvious. They will be receiving the work and the money spent on the research. Jonathan Kozol, in his book, Illiterate America, asks the obvious question about ending illiteracy, “Why should we spend additional time and money on research when the researchers will only be confirming what we already know?”
Proof That English Spelling Causes Serious Problems:
An analysis of the Adult Literacy in America report and a 2006 follow-up report prove the shocking extent * of functional illiteracy in English. (All asterisks in this article refer to the “Read More” pages in a website that has a link in the last paragraph of this article.) The Adult Literacy in America report — from a five-year, $14 million study — is the most statistically accurate and comprehensive study of U.S. adult literacy ever commissioned by the U.S. government. The Adult Literacy in America study involved lengthy interviews of 26,049 adults statistically chosen by age, gender, ethnicity, and location (urban, suburban, and rural locations in twelve states across the U.S. and included 1,100 prisoners from 80 prisons) to represent the entire U.S. population. These documents prove that 48.7 percent of U.S. adults are functionally illiterate (defined as being unable to hold an above-poverty-level-wage job), proves that 31.2 percent of these illiterates are in poverty, and proves that they are more than twice as likely to be in poverty because of their illiteracy as for all other reasons combined. The inability to hold a good job is the most accurate and reliable indicator of illiteracy because employers have a very strong financial interest in accurately determining a person’s ability to read and write to make sure that they will be a profitable employee. All other methods are susceptible to unintentional (or even intentional) inaccuracies because of the size, time period, and subjects of the data base used and because of the data handling, calculation, and verification methods used.
Jonathan Kozol’s shocking book, Illiterate America, proves the seriousness of the problem. Kozol describes the serious physical, mental, emotional, medical, and financial problems that illiterates must endure every day of their lives, problems that we would consider a crisis if we had to endure them. Functional illiterates cannot read well enough to perform many of the simple daily tasks needed to thrive in our present complex, technologically challenging life — tasks that those of us who are literate take for granted. An informative website about ending illiteracy in English summarizes the seriousness * of the problem of illiteracy.
In addition to the seriousness for illiterates, illiteracy costs every U.S. Adult — both reader and non-reader — an average of more than $5,000 each year. This cost is (1) for government programs that illiterates use (for example: job training, unemployment payments, welfare, Medicare, and Medicaid), (2) for truancy, juvenile delinquency, and crime directly related to illiteracy, and (3) for the higher cost of consumer goods (about $2,200 of that $5,000) because of illiterates in the labor pool (necessitating higher recruiting costs) and in the workplace. You and I both know that if the first two items were eliminated, our taxes would not decrease — the government would find somewhere else to spend the money — but at least that particular waste of money would be gone.
This pales in comparison, however, to the cost of at least two years of public education wasted by the additional time required to learn to read. The English Spelling Society on their www.englishspellingsociety.org website claims that our present spelling requires an average of three years longer to learn than if our words were spelled phonemically. The 2008-2009 cost, per pupil, (the latest available figures) for public elementary and secondary education in the U.S. is $12,643. For the millions of U.S. students, this amounts to hundreds of billions of dollars wasted. You and I both know that if our spelling was perfected, that expenditure would not stop. Instead, English-speaking students would attend school the same number of years, but they would finally be able to compete with students of the same age in non-English-speaking industrialized nations.
The (often-unrecognized) illiterates among us adversely affect our entire nation. Illiterates not only cause large expenditures for their needs, but also their inabilities harm the trade balance with other nations, and result in outsourcing and many other causes of American jobs being sent overseas as explained by Thomas Friedman’s book, The Earth is Flat.
The Solution to Illiteracy in English:
Based upon Dr. Laubach’s experience, what English-speaking people need is English spelled phonemically. A spelling system known as NuEnglish is phonemically perfect: a one-grapheme-to-one-phoneme correspondence. It has ten beneficial characteristics * that correct all the problems in present spelling. No other known spelling system proposed from the late 1800s to the present has all — or even most — of these beneficial characteristics.
Most people want to know the “cost of the cure” as mentioned in the second paragraph of this article. When people learn the cost of the cure is spelling reform, they may think the cost is too high. This is only until they learn these thirteen important, provable facts:
- At present, only slightly more than half of the students become fluent readers. Most of those who become fluent need at least two years to learn to read well enough to be able to keep increasing their reading vocabulary until they become fluent readers.
- Learning to read a phonemically perfect spelling system will be extremely easy. Present readers can learn the ten simple NuEnglish spelling rules in less than ten minutes and read NuEnglish at almost the same rate as they read present English spelling. Persons attempting to read NuEnglish material — even before learning the spelling system — were able to read aloud with only an occasional two- or three-second stumble over some of the words. Present readers can easily return to present reading rates with a couple of months of experience in reading NuEnglish.
- With proper instruction, the better beginning readers will be able to read NuEnglish fluently in a week, as Dr. Laubach stated. All but the most mentally handicapped will certainly be able to become fluent readers of NuEnglish in less than three months. A month or two after becoming fluent in NuEnglish, beginning readers will be able to read at the same rate as readers who are fluent in our present chaotic spelling system — or more likely: somewhat faster.
- No overall statistically significant improvement in reading education in English has been made since our ridiculous spelling system was frozen in 1755. All those who object to attacks on our spelling by claiming that “English is a beautiful language” or “We should not attack our ‘mother tongue’ ” need to get serious! How many immigrants or beginning readers would call English a “beautiful language” while struggling to learn to read our present illogical, inconsistent spelling?
- A phonemic spelling system has been proven effective by Dr. Laubach’s work in more than 300 alphabetic languages, as explained in the section, “Proof That a Phonemic Spelling System Will SOLVE the Problem,” above.
- Although English-speaking nations have tried a multitude of ways to solve the problem since 1755, correcting our spelling by freezing the spelling of the phonemes instead of the words is the only solution that will ever work.
- In the long run, correcting our spelling will save money rather than costing! We will not have to replace the reading textbooks every five or six years when the “new and improved” teaching method comes out that addresses the symptoms of the difficulty of reading without solving the problem causing the difficulty. We will only replace textbooks when they physically wear out; and the reading textbooks will be much smaller and easier to prepare. Most of the content can simply be children’s classical literature (much of which has exceeded the copyright date) transposed into English spelled phonemically by use of a computer program.
- All reasonable objections * to spelling reform have been thoroughly debunked by reputable, respected scholars.
- Numerous benefits of finally correcting our spelling system far overbalance any objections (even the unreasonable ones) that persons resisting change may have.
- Dozens of scholars for the last 250 years or more have recommended spelling reform.
- Thirty-three nations, both smaller and larger than the U.S., both advanced and developing nations, have simplified their spelling.
- The need for a higher literacy rate is greater than ever in our increasingly complex world. Very few of today’s jobs do not require literacy. International trade is making most jobs increasingly competitive.
- 13. Appropriate to unlucky thirteen, however, here is the kicker: comprehensive spelling reform has never been attempted in English! There are two significant reasons why this is true: (1) there are several reasons why most people do not know * the seriousness of the problem — as you now know, if you have read the “Proof That English Spelling Causes Serious Problems” section above. (2) Most people, familiar only with the difficulty of learning present English spelling, have difficulty understanding that students can quickly, easily learn to read * with a perfect phonemic spelling system. For those who may have disbelieved the facts about the seriousness of the problem or the ease of implementing the solution, the website below addresses both of these reasons. Due to the seriousness of the problem of functional illiteracy in English, you are challenged to prove to yourself whether what is presented here is factual or not.
What Must Be Done to Ensure Success in Ending Illiteracy in English:
No humanitarian project — no matter how worthy — can succeed unless enough people know about it. Publicity is essential for the success of almost any project. There are more than 1.3 billion English-speaking people around the world. An estimated 600 million English-speaking people around the world — more than 93 million in the U.S. alone — are desperately hoping that you and I will help them end their functional illiteracy in English. All that is needed to begin the process of definitely and permanently ending illiteracy in English is to publicize the proven solution to illiteracy. If enough people know about the seriousness of the problem and the ease of solving the problem, the problem will be solved. Otherwise, how can anyone claim to have any compassion whatsoever for the problem?
Bob Cleckler, has been working passionately since 1985 to help end illiteracy in English. A careful, honest evaluation of his ending illiteracy in English website will take only six minutes. The proofs in six of the “Read More” pages mentioned above are as follows. The shocking extent * of functional illiteracy in English (page 2), why we do not know * the extent of the problem (page 3), the seriousness * of the effects of illiteracy (page 4), the characteristics * of NuEnglish (page 8), how to quickly, easily learn to read * NuEnglish (page 10), and objections * to spelling reform (page 11). There is a “Media Page” link on our website, in the left-hand column, with an informative video about our humanitarian project. There are five blogs on ending illiteracy, all of which are available by clicking “IMPORTANT LINKS.” Gary Sprunk, M.S. English Linguistics, prepared the NuEnglish.org website that has the Respeller, a computer program — with a database of more than 617,000 traditionally spelled English words — that will quickly transpose up to 25 pages of traditional spelling into NuEnglish. Cleckler wrote the latest version of his award-winning book, Let’s End Our Literacy Crisis, in 2012. To allay any suspicions that his passion is only to make money on his book, rather than an earnest desire to help hundreds of millions of people, this second revision is a 265-page e-book in PDF format that is available at no cost or obligation of any kind in the left-hand column of our website. It has 164 pages of text, 8 Appendixes in 46 pages, 178 extensive notes and references, a Glossary, an extensive bibliography, an index, and other features. This book proposes a plan for implementing NuEnglish, and it will answer any of the questions that our website does not answer.